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A BARROW BOYHOOD

Now years later, even though I can barely remember what I did yesterday, the day I fell into the Red Waters trying to get a closer look at a dead cat, burns as bright as it did when I squelched home through the Barrow streets.

A madeleine dipped in tea might have done the trick for a Frenchman whose name I forget, but hot Ribena and thickly buttered crusts on a winter's afternoon while the wind whips across the Irish Sea does it for me.

In the summer when something as simple and as singularly unromantic as the smell and feel of sun-soft tar or heat reflecting from a red-bricked terrace brings the memories of things past for this Barrow boy.

Of course the timing of such Proustian moments is unpredictable and entirely arbitrary. Sometimes it's just the way the light is or when I find myself in a part of town and, thankfully there are still many places left despite the huge changes of the last few decades, when the turn of a corner brings a familiar sight.

Memories can rise to the surface when I least expect them such as halfway through an Evening Mail five-a-side match at the Sixth Form College. Phil "Chopper" Pearson, committed yet another infringement of the rules he makes up as he goes along, and slammed the ball into the net from inside the area. It all came flooding back.


The final of the inter-junior school five-a-side competition, 1963. We were the Golden Eagles, pride of the Sacred Heart, as we battled against the odds to reach the final against St Mary's. It was four each with only seconds to go when their centre forward broke through the middle and headed for our goal. The ball went loose and despite a desperate lunge I failed to stop him scoring from well inside the area. Sadly all our protests were in vain and though he won't thank me for recalling it, Furness Cavaliers' stalwart and current player manager, Dave "Stoggy" Staunton, our captain, burst into tears. I remember it as if were yesterday.


Born during the 1950s, mine was a generation growing up free of the intruding video camera recording a child's every moment from the day they are born. Surprisingly by today's standards of 24/7 recording, the only professional photograph from my early years was, ironically taken by an Evening Mail photographer in 1959 at the Grasslands Convent School Catholic Sports Day. Caught forever, the line in sight, a fine striped tee-shirt on my back and the promise of crisps and pop to the winner.

Oddly enough the fading black-and-white family snaps suit my memory of events or at least the selective manner in which I choose to recall them. For the most part the pictures were taken with a Box Brownie and where some capture the moment exactly, others fail to stir a single thought about the time and moment they were supposed to record.


Wide-eyed I stare in shades of grey, snapped at parties and family outings but no matter how long I stare back I can neither recall anything about those long-gone days or even recognise the child in the picture. Of course I know it's me but it seems the only thing we two have in common is a seemingly inordinate and continuing fondness for striped tee-shirts and baggy shorts. Whereas a collection of crimped-edged snaps, scattered through a green-backed family album is just the way I recall things, randomly and in no particular order.


It's words more than anything, some last spoken more than 40 years ago that can still be replayed at will. "Christmas next Eric," sighed Mr Butler to my dad, wearily resigned to the fact that the annual spending spree was laying in wait for his wallet a mere eight weeks away. He said this as we turned our soot-blackened faces and smoke-stung eyes from the annual Park Avenue bonfire for the 50-yard walk back home. November 5, 1963 or so I suppose, the year's uncertain but I remember - As if it were yesterday.


Numbers too. Nowadays I might not be able to remember where I put the car keys five minutes after putting them down, but I can recall our old Co-op dividend number without a moment's hesitation. Mind you it's hardly surprising. "8098," shouted me mam for at least the millionth time in her life as I set off for Greengate Co-op, "Here's a note and don't forget to tell the lady your check number."


Numbers such as the car registrations of vehicles we owned. The black Mayflower was NLX 308, Then there was the second-hand Morris Traveller (URM 936), followed by a two-tone white and connaught green Wolsley 1500 (MEO 103).


If there is one overall memory of my childhood it's one of a life lived outside on the streets of Barrow. Front streets with rainbow-striped flapping plastic blinds hanging in open summer doorways when nobody was worried about walk-in thefts because they didn't have anything worth pinching. Sitting on kerbs, scraping the soft tar with lollipop sticks, orchard raiding, falling off bikes, falling off walls, falling out of trees, dead cats in the Red River and bommie night - all outside.


My childhood Barrow was a time when Back Street Boys meant something slightly different to being a member of a boy band. Specifically, my back street was behind the Greengate end of Park Avenue, a washing-strung strip, edged by a row of garages standing above a thinly grassed bank dropping to an easily scaled fence separating us from the railway line running into Barrow station a few hundred yards away. That back street was my life then.


It was a short-trousered, scuffed-kneed life set to the accompaniment of steam trains muscling their way down the line. A time of shiny-bright Supercars, crossbows, dutch 'arrers', brick fights, dog bites and countless tetanus injections at North Lonsdale, penny lucky bags and tuppeny ice-blocks, Blackjacks, 3-2-1 Zeros, Victor and Valiant comics, Meccano and of course Mass.


Brought up as a Roman Catholic I remember Mass on holy days, Mass on Sundays. Lent, confessions, benedictions, endless sermons, itchy green serge suits for Sunday, incense and early morning walks to the Sacred Heart Church to serve as an altar boy at Mass.

It is always dark in these memories and Marsh Street tunnel was the worse bit. It was spooky and what made it worse, across the road lived the strange, smelly man who sold newspapers and comics that he kept stacked in his hall. I think he had had polio and scooted along on his hands and his house stunk so strongly of sweat and fish I can smell it now - As if it were yesterday.


That famous sprinter Peter Leach, sporting the stripy T Shirt, takes the lead at Crosslands Convent Sports Day in 1959

The 'Back Street Boys' c 1960, champion bommie builders. At the back, David Butler; front row, Howard Butler, Eddie Braithwate, Mike Kenny, Peter Leach and Desmond Casey.

Peter Leach today. A photo taken on the roof of his workplace, the North West Evening Mail

I can also clearly remember an incident in the early 60s when Terry, one of my classmates at the Sacred Heart School, fell from the bars in the playground. Now, this was the era of concrete yards, and Terry broke his arm. I don't recall anybody being unduly concerned, apart from Terry of course, who was non too happy. One thing that did not happen, was that his mother did not immediately rush across to see the head and demand an inquiry, or threaten to sue the school. All that happened, was Terry was taken off to North Lonsdale where he had his arm set and put in a plaster cast, which cheered him up no end and made him the envy of the school, particularly as he had a week off school. Meanwhile, things carried on as normal. Terry was mentioned in prayers at the next assembly and the following playtime we went back to playing the games we always played which, apart from swinging from the bars, including such apparently deadly pursuits as British Bulldog - and Conkers!


Sometimes my perspective on childhood memories can be altered by modern-day events such as when not that long ago I learned something about a man I had barely known when he was alive, my paternal grandfather - Sam Leach. I remembered two things about him - he had a turn in his eye and he dropped dead on the doorstep of his Newbarns home following a heart attack and I was told in the front room of 162 Park Avenue.


That was in 1961. He was 66 years old and I was eight. Forty years and half a lifetime away when I lived in a different world to the one in which he had lived. I didn't know that then of course, he was just some grumpy old intolerant git that never smiled. Consequently, I wasn't too bothered at his passing at the time, because I thought him a particularly angry and very scary man. What I didn't know then but know now was the harshness of the life he had led and the times he lived through. To be honest, if I had it wouldn't have made much difference.

I was just a kid but now, thanks to my uncle, I do know and it makes a difference.


Sam was an infantryman in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme and was shot. When he returned home, he worked in the Barrow Steelworks where,  my granma told me, he would often go to work on a Friday and not return until Sunday. He was known throughout the mill as a hard man, a very hard man. The First World War and the subsequent hardship of his life are way beyond the grasp of most of us in this cosseted society. But it shaped him and,  made him into the man that appeared constantly angry to a young lad.


Beyond all this and other memories though, I remember as a kid always waiting for someone to come out to play. I was always up early; something that stays with me today and I can't understand anybody who wants to stay in bed after 7am, unless they have overindulged in the fine wines. Consequently I was always waiting for my mates to get up. They did in the end of course but I'd usually lost interest by then and the horizons that had seemed boundless but a few hours earlier had narrowed to the width of the walled back street.


At six-o-clock in the morning I'd been ready to go to darkest Africa hunting for ivory or the Spice Islands in search of nutmeg but by dinner-time had settled for smashing windows in the empty house at the end of the street. My fault really I suppose I should have just gone on my own.


Still there was always Bommie Night that was the real highlight of the year, even if Mr Butler did see it merely as a stepping stone on the way to the excesses of Christmas. Weeks of preparation began during the long summer holidays with widespread collecting ranging far and wide was already under way. Door-to-door collections; "Scuse me missus, 'ave you got 'owt' for our bommie?"


If we were lucky we'd get an old leather horsehair stuffed settee with casters, thrown out in the post-war modernisation boom, to be replaced with black vinyl and nylon cushioned chic, its bonfire day still in the future. Like free­wheeling wonder waltzers loosed from the carousel, we'd ride them bouncing, bucking and spinning downhill until the wheels, screaming in protest finally snapped bringing us grinding to a juddering halt.


Looking back, our bonfire collecting bordered on fanaticism. A need to constantly be the biggest with our archenemies the gangs from the streets surrounding the cooling tower across the railway line. Well before the time when councils banned them, ours was always on the field at the back of Park Ave. When I say field, it's only in the loosest sense of the word. Really it was just one of those grassy patches of common land still in existence for the 20 or so years after the Second World War. Sadly the developer's eye fell on it years ago and now garages are the headstones marking where Indians once fell to our cowboys' guns and where we built fire brigade-summoning-bonfires and plucked caterpillars from giant ragwort. Yes, in those freer, less mollycoddled times ours was the Everest of bommies.


What days they were! Exciting, adventurous times when, it has to be said some things ran us foul of the law and we would have been done more often if we hadn't been quite so fleet of foot and foolish enough to evade the chasing bobbies with a dash across the railway lines. When we were caught it was a clip round the ear and a warning; "I've got my eye on you lad," which was more than enough.


Then there were the banana slides in Barrow Park, polished mirror smooth with bread bags. Speed was the thing and travel beyond the slide measured. Distances compared. If NASA scientists had our ideas on lubrication and gravity defying leaps, Neil Armstrong would have landed on the moon five years earlier.


Two words that were never used together when I was a lad were designer and clothing unless you count gabardine. The main weapon against the winter months wasn't some fancy fleece jacket emblazoned with the name of a native New Yorker; it was a woollen balaclava, like pulling a Brillo pad over your head. In the post-war recovery years of the utilitarian 50's clothes can only be described charitably as serviceable, which is where most of them could be found these days - in Charity Shops.


There are many good things about being able to make a living in the town where I was born, not least when the air and the light are just so, I get a glimpse, even a taste of something most of us misplace along the way -childhood. In my case it's heat from a sun-tanned terrace caressing my face as I pass by in such a way I have to reach out and feel the glaze-smooth brick. Or it's just a sight or a sound. When a walk down Lumley Street takes me by the Sacred Heart church, a sight that still strikes me as spooky today as much as it did when I was an altar boy, brings me to my old school. Unseen children's voices spill over walls before tumbling down the streets where I walked so many times. It's - As if it were yesterday.


Or sometimes it's just a cloud on a summer's day, ice on a winter's pond or conkers in autumn, a time of year when I still collect a handful just to keep the tradition going.


So, after all these years I'm reasonably content. Winning the Lottery would settle my debts of course but it wouldn't change much else other than I wouldn't have to work and my fiscal shackles could be loosed once and for all.



No, it's a contentedness probably stemming from when I was a lad when all I wanted to be was a footballer or an astronaut until I found out I wasn't good enough for the former and in the wrong country for the latter. You see I like living and working here among the red bricks, and I know that I am lucky to have a job that lets me get by.


From a window near the desk where I work I can see the roof of the house where I grew up. From another I see the cemetery but I don't look out of that one too much. With age, moments, when I can turn my head and welcome a familiar sight or sound, increasingly make me smile. Anyway enough of this indulgence. Suffice to say, like Bill and his Hawke Street home I am not ashamed of my past or the future that will hopefully keep me here for a good few years yet to come.


On my bookshelf is a copy of "Barrow's Boys." It's a biography of Ulverston- born Sir John Barrow who was second secretary to the admiralty during the nineteenth century and a man who played a major role in Britain's rise as an empire through his promotion of world exploration. "Are you in there?" said my niece to me one day when she saw the title, "Are you one of Barrow's boys?"


"No love not in that sense," I replied smiling, "But in another way, yes I am, and I'm glad”.



A northern working class childhood is clearly not as romantic as one spent in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower or with the Brooklyn Bridge as a backdrop but it was for me, as it was Bill Rollinson, the place we were both proud to call home.


The offices of the North-West Evening Mail in Abbey Road where I now work are, at most, a 10-minute walk from the house in Park Avenue where I spent most of my childhood years. Strange as it may seem, as I get older I find this proximity increasingly comforting. A consequence of this familiarity, particularly as a working journalist in the town where I was born, means that much of what I write draws upon memories of Barrow's past and how it is dealing with its present.


So, that said, what follows are some recollections and reflections of a Barrow boyhood - some day they might be expanded into something more but for the time being it's a small essay - As if it were yesterday. It's funny the things that stick in my mind from my Barrow childhood. Mere instances for the most part but somehow they have been tagged for later reference, snapshots randomly filed into a subconscious picture album. At the time there was no reason, no flash of lightning or shattering, "I'll remember that," moment.